Recently, retired WWE performers the Undertaker and Mark Henry had quotes about the current WWE locker room scene that raised many eyebrows online with not only the Internet Wrestling Community, but the present WWE roster itself. Now that both guys are retired, with Mark Henry already in the WWE Hall of Fame and Undertaker rumored for the 2021 Hall of Fame (or whenever the next one happens, thank you COVID-19), both are freely speaking their mind in interviews not fully sanctioned by WWE. And it's great... Neither guy has nothing to lose yet the WWE sees value in having both guys still around in non-wrestling capacities. Mark Henry is doing a decent job as a WWE scout, as Bianca Belair was his finding...
The Undertaker was the first one to comment about the current WWE locker room scene from his appearance on Joe Rogan's podcast:
"The product has changed so much and it's kind of off. I'll probably piss a lot of people off but they need to hear it. It is what it is. To the young guys who think he’s a bitter old guy, I'm not bitter. I did my time, I walked away when I wanted to walk away. I just think the product is a little soft. There's guys here and there that have an edge to them but there’s too much pretty and not enough substance I think right now."
"One of the big things that happened was that the generation before, we all got old at the same time so there weren't enough guys to work with the young guys. You can listen to the fans on the internet or you can listen to someone who's been there and done it. There was just not enough of the merging of the young and new talent."
"I remember walking into my first real dressing room, and all I saw were some crusty [f'n] men. Half of them had guns and knives in their bags. [Stuff] just got handled back then. Now you walk in, there's guys playing video games and [f'n] making sure they look pretty. It's evolution, I guess. I don't know what it is, but I just like those eras, man. I liked when men were men."
Mark Henry was on Busted Open Radio recently to give his views on the WWE Locker Rooms, past and present:
"Yea, guys were a little bit wilder. Guys were a little bit impulsive back then, but the men were still as tough now as they were then. We're a corporate industry now. You have to have some decorum. You have to have some class otherwise you will not be employed by any of those companies. They recruit a certain type of guy. Recruiting wild cannons and guys that you didn't know if they were going to show up high or they got arrested the night before, you can't employ those guys. Taker was right to an extent. He should have said wild cannons and guys that were quick to get angry. It was a badge of honor at times to show your toughness. You go out there and you beat the hell out of somebody. Then the fight spills into the back and everybody's entertained."
"It's a different time…I came in the early ‘90s and there were guys that tried to take liberties with me. There was stuff that happened in the locker room that was looked at as unspeakable…I can tell you, some of those guys against John Morrison, against Bobby Lashley, Matt Riddle, these guys can really fight. They know the strategy of how to fight…There were tough guys in both eras…Taker wasn't wrong because guys back then carried guns in their briefcases or a knife or a crowbar. Sh** went down. Guys were ready and accepting of it, but also you could go to the local cops and go, ‘Hey man. This never happened. Can I get you some front row tickets?' Nine times out of ten, it got squashed and never hit the news. Now, everybody has a camera. You can't do all the stuff that guys did back then."
"Greg 'The Hammer' Valentine having a gun in the locker room and the gun going off, like, bro, if that happened today, you would face federal jail time. That's why things aren't the way they used to be, not just the fact that it's a corporate company and you don't want to make those mistakes in the first place because you'll never work again. Taker was right. There was a level of wildness, Wild Wild West, that doesn't exist today. That's what he meant. I think people took it out of context actually. I heard what he said and I agree with what he said, it's just I didn't agree with how he said it. The description of what it was, was off."
Undertaker's career spanned over 30 years whereas Mark's dates back to 1996 (I was at the RAW taping when he debuted). Both guys touched upon the 1990s when the partying was much more extreme than it is today. There wasn't Social Media or Smart Phones to report and capture all of the bad behavior. Thus, both Mark Henry and the Undertaker have perspective on how things used to be versus what they are now.
Let's make a few things clear here... There are 3 things that happened BEFORE 2007 that are now being heavily regulated to this day. Obviously, the death of Chris Benoit and how he murdered his family changed everything within the WWE. Specifically:
(a) Tougher Drug Testing Policies
(b) Tougher on Prescription Drug Abuse
(c) Tougher on Performance Enhancement Use
(d) Concussion protocol
Obviously in most pro sports and pro wrestling, if you didn't wrestle or play, you didn't get paid. Thus, any wrestler who was tipsy after a match wasn't treated immediately and probably wrestled the following night. Chris Benoit had way too many concussions and was never treated for them.
Performance Enhancers are heavily regulated now and much of the WWE roster appears thinner on muscle mass than they did before. Part of the wrestler deaths that happened to guys under the age of 50 were due to some sort of enlarged heart issue caused by steroid abuse.
While politicians are using the "Opioid Crisis" on political ads now, prescription drugs have been flowing through wrestling locker rooms throughout the 1990s. Vince McMahon implemented recreational drug testing, as there were Cocaine issues throughout the 1980s. He also had a thing against Pot, too... Thus, when while wrestlers were not allowed to snort or smoke street drugs, they were allowed to swallow as many muscle relaxing pills that they wanted. Combine pills with alcohol, it could be lethal mix. In addition to enlarged hearts from performance enhancing drugs, abusing prescription drugs was also a major killer of pro wrestlers under the age of 50.
Sadly, it took the actions of Chris Benoit killing his family and then himself for the WWE to realize that they didn't want any part in manufacturing another one of these. Thus, tougher Wellness Policies were added as were more restrictive concussion protocols. In my opinion, these are POSITIVES in the wrestling business. Abusing prescription pills, abusing performance enhancers, and working with multiple concussions is dangerous and pro wrestling today is better with safety provisions against those right now. I won't argue that point...
There are other things wrong with today's Wrestling culture that needs to be addressed. In my column last week, I was quite critical of Triple H as the Talent Relations guy and how he had yet to deliver a strong drawing Main Event wrestler to Vince McMahon for the main WWE roster. Simply put, if you look at all of the WWE Champions, World Heavyweight Champions, and WWE Universal Champions, there are FEW Triple H signings. It's mostly Jim Ross and John Laurinaitis signed guys. And if you look at the cultures of both, you'll see why both were successful...
Jim Ross sent his guys to Cincinnati for Les Thatcher's promotion or to Jim Cornette & Danny Davis's Ohio Valley Wrestling. Both guys had arenas or training areas that were dark and had barebones facilities for locker rooms. Both Cornette and Thatcher preached having just 1 ring and for anyone who is not wrestling, they are required to watch those who are performing. Cornette and Thatcher ran things like an old Territory and booked spot shows anywhere they could just to give their wrestlers experience. But they also taught them how to be HUNGRY to want more. Payoffs for an audience of 30 people aren't that high... And also working hard to build a promotion from the ground up also humbles the talent as well.
John Laurinaitis had different methods of training, sure, but his Florida Championship Wrestling was like a traveling indy show. Facilities were a bit nicer and there were more rings within the same training facility to work with. I would certainly argue that Cornette and Thatcher's guys were more hungry to achieve more than Laurinaitis but as you can see by Bray Wyatt, Seth Rollins, Roman Reigns, Dean Ambrose before he left, Rusev before he left, Daniel Bryan, etc, there was something keeping the wrestlers hungry to achieve great things later on. Most of John's guys are the top guys in the WWE right now.
With Triple H, he built the WWE Performance Center which is a state-of-the-art facility with weight training, many rings, air conditioning, etc. Much nicer housing provided for the wrestlers and they are also getting reportedly paid better than OVW or FCW talent. They also perform often in one arena at Full Sail. Thus, the traveling hasn't been as intense for the NXT wrestler than previous developmental territories. The end result? Well, let's allow Braun Strowman demonstrate what he told Independent Wrestlers during 2020 who were struggling as COVID-19 was cancelling Indy shows everywhere:
"Here we go with more of the somebody pay for my bills stuff. If you can't afford to pay your bills maybe you should change professions. That's why I quit strongman. I loved it, but I couldn't afford to live so instead of making a go fund me or a Patreon wanting someone else to take care of me I went out and worked harder than I ever have in my life to get to where I am. What happened to being accountable for your own actions?"
"And for anyone that goes that's easy for you to say you're a WWE superstar just and FYI 7 years ago I moved to Florida with everything I owned in a Kia Soul with 150$ to my name when I started this!"
Seriously, he actually said that. Braun actually believes that he "paid dues" by being a Performance Center star.
And how about Nia Jax. Before I state the obvious, I do want to say that I did see potential when she was in NXT. She's a plus size model who works as a heel and is unique. I'll give her that... Her early work with Asuka and Bayley was fun to watch in NXT. However, she was promoted way too early to the WWE. Obviously, many will blame Vince McMahon for that. HOWEVER, let me bring all of your attention to the WWE Breaking Ground show on the WWE Network. BEFORE Nia Jax even has a match, Triple H has a meeting with her where he gives her a RAISE. She had yet to have a freakin' match and she received a pay boost.
But obviously, we know why Nia Jax is really getting pushed and why she's pampered. She can injure multiple wrestlers on the roster and appear to struggle lifting wrestlers due to potentially bad conditioning... It doesn't matter. She's related to the Rock and that helps her out. Family relations really matter in the WWE and that's why Roman Reigns has been granted every opportunity in the world to succeed (he's doing a great job lately, but not so much from early 2014 through early 2020) and also Randy Orton. Vince McMahon having that bias towards the next generational stars SUBTRACTS the hunger in Nia, Roman, or Randy to want it on their own. It took Roman being away from the product for things out of his control, Leukemia and COVID-19 precautions, to make him WANT IT.
Right now, all of the NXT talents are being seen easily on Pay Per Views for their Takeover shows and also for their weekly show now on USA Network (formerly WWE Network). Ohio Valley Wrestling and Florida Championship Wrestling was barely seen on television and was mostly regional. If you listen to certain NXT wrestlers, they'll tell you that NXT is better than the WWE and many NXT wrestlers have actually requested to NEVER leave NXT. Little do those guys know is that NXT and the Performance Center actually operate at a LOSS. The USA Network show just did 610,000 viewers last week and is a reported threat to be dismissed from its Wednesday Night timeslot when Comcast consolidates their channels next year (NBC Sports merging into USA Network). Much of the talent who want to stay in NXT are being ridiculous... Then again, many of those Triple H signings are under 6 feet tall or less than 200 pounds and wouldn't have a shot to succeed in the WWE "Land of the Giants".
But there is MORE to this story besides having an easier road to the WWE...
Think about this for a second... The Undertaker, probably before 1998, didn't have a GUARANTEED contract. Mark Henry did, as he oddly was in a bidding war with WWE and WCW at the time and signed that infamous 10 year, $10 million contract back in 1996. But the Undertaker didn't have a guaranteed contract! If he got hurt, he wouldn't get paid! On top of that, he started off in the more dire financial years for the WWE. After Wrestlemania 6, the WWE began to decline and wouldn't see upward growth again until late 1997. You REALLY had to want it back then to succeed eventually in the wrestling business. If you look at the Undertaker from 1996-1997 when the WWE was just about to hit rock bottom, he's busting his ass to have great matches with Mick Foley, Bret Hart, and Shawn Michaels for legendary matches. He WANTED IT and had to keep working hard for it.
The bi-product of the Monday Night Wars, thanks to Eric Bischoff and Ted Turner/Time Warner willing to spend money, was that contracts in pro wrestling featured guaranteed money for an amount of years. No matter if you got hurt or under-performed, that money was coming in... And guaranteed contracts have never left. Every developmental wrestler and WWE talent has a downside guarantee in their contracts and thanks to All Elite Wrestling emerging, many wrestlers received higher bumps in their WWE paychecks for guaranteed money (as long as WWE doesn't terminate you). Thus, if the money is guaranteed, the work ethic might not be there... If you listen to interviews with Undertaker, Steve Austin, Mick Foley, and many other top stars, those lean years were tough to endure financially when wrestling promotions actually REQUIRED you to pay for your travel, hotel rooms, and food.
Because of the dire financial situations during the early to mid 1990s, wrestlers piled up into rental cars and also piled up into cheap hotel rooms. But, do you know what that built? COMRADERY (also spelled as "camaraderie"). That word is defined as "mutual trust and friendship among people who spend a lot of time together". Do you want to know why the Clique or BSK existed back then? Because they had to travel together being crammed in the same car and piling into the same hotel rooms. Do you depressing that is? It's no wonder why the guys partied so much. The were wrestling in that HARDER WWE RING (they switched it to a softer ring by 1999) and were receiving low payoffs for that work.
Nowadays, wrestlers have their travel and hotels comped by the WWE. Catering backstage is like a high priced buffet. They are also working FEWER dates than ever... Besides COVID-19, the WWE was beginning to cutback on houseshows because the TV money was so much that they didn't have to travel as much. Since travel and lodging are paid for, wrestlers aren't piling into cars like they used to, nor are they sharing the same hotel rooms. Wrestlers are much more isolated, as they mostly stay in their hotel rooms to hang out on Social Media or to play video games. Many of the wrestlers have their own Chartered Buses for travel and living! Wrestlers from the 1990s did not have that luxury.
It's being piled up into those cheap hotel rooms or being stuffed in the car is where the appreciation and the hunger for the business builds. Those guys talked to each other back then about the business and would critique each other. The friendships forged would create trust in the ring. Look at the famous Clique back then and then understand the quality of wrestling and promos that you got from them: Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, Triple H, Shawn Michaels, and 1-2-3 Kid. All great inside the ring and also amazing on the microphone to sell who they are. Each of those guys made millions in the business and were the ones who created those guaranteed contracts in the first place. If you listen to their stories, they were all piled into smaller rental cars and cheap hotel rooms... But they formed their friendship and learned more about the business by being together often.
There is just NO hunger in the wrestling business right now to be great. While you could argue that WWE Creative is terrible, I could point to WWE Creative being GOD AWFUL from 1990 through 1995 to cause the WWE to really be in financial dire straits during early 1997.
Wrestlers now have guaranteed money and are receiving better workplace benefits THANKS to the guys of the past... You're seeing the same damn thing in the NFL and the NBA. Older NFL players saw a much more violent game and were paid way less for it. Nowadays in the NFL, if you even breathe on a Quarterback or Wide Receiver, it's a penalty. And don't you dare hit an Offensive player in the head whatsoever. During the 1980s and early 1990s, the NBA allowed players to clothesline their opponents when they tried to drive the lane. Furthermore, they allowed handchecks which allowed non-stop pushoffs by defenders. NBA changed its rules and now you have a much more wide-open game and no more Detroit Piston BAD BOYS type teams emerging.
Furthermore, the much tougher coaches no longer exist in today's sports. Right now, you're seeing a revolt against Bill Belichick but before that, coaches who were way too aggressive like Bobby Knight were ushered out of the sport. Coaches are becoming much more player friendly, particularly now in the NFL.
As much as we love Jim Cornette and his Podcasts, what ended his WWE career overseeing the developmental system at Ohio Valley Wrestling was slapping Santino Morella multiple times during 2005. Morella was caught laughing at the Boogie Man and Corny slapped him repeatedly backstage after the event and in front of many people to see him making an example out of Santino. If that had happened 10 years prior, Jim probably would retain whatever job he had and many would say "Santino deserved it". Corporate WWE didn't want the liability or the culture of a trainer getting physical with their students and let him go. I'm certainly not condoning the trainers slapping the wrestlers, but the results of Danny Davis, Rip Rogers, and Jim Cornette's Ohio Valley Wrestling speak for themselves (Lesnar, Batista, Orton, and Cena). Something just isn't working for the way that Triple H and Matt Bloom are training wrestlers.
And then you look at free agency... Hate to say it, but Miro and FTR haven't made much impact in AEW. Jon Moxley made a good impact with his 2019 debut in AEW but his matches have been subpar. Remember during the 1990s when any wrestler from WWE, WCW, or even ECW would leave their promotions and make a HUGE SPLASH in another? Seriously, Lex Luger was a total bust in WWE as the "All American" guy but he joins WCW during 1995 to make an incredible 2 year run. Scott Hall & Kevin Nash could go to WCW to become bigger stars during 1996. Triple H, Mick Foley, and Steve Austin all left WCW and become gigantic stars in WWE.
But now... If someone leaves the WWE, it's really not a threat. Sure, the WWE thought that AEW was a threat for much of 2019 and hence why they gave more guaranteed money to their stars. But what happened with that post-Wrestlemania 36 bloodbath? So many wrestlers were cut from their WWE jobs... But tell me, who has actually made a major impact elsewhere? We're not seeing it... WWE's Developmental System is weaker than it ever has been (again, check out last week's column entitled Triple H's Incompetence Helped Edge Win Rumble), but I don't believe that wrestlers are as hungry as they used to be.
Yes, WWE has become too corporate and sanitized, but they were very kid friendly and controlled by merchandising during the 1980s too. Back then, you couldn't even DARE show any of your personal life or else it was held against you. Now, wrestlers can freely talk about how staged pro wrestling is and how phony their characters are via Social Media. It's awesome of the talent to display their real names on Social Media, too. Then, you have someone like Lacey Evans doing an angle where she's having an affair with Ric Flair (wooo, that rhymes) and then she posts pictures of her kid and husband on Social Media. Huh?!? How is that consistent?
Wrestlers back then PROTECTED THE BUSINESS which is why the Undertaker hardly ever did interviews or public appearances until he was retired. Now, wrestlers freely chat about how staged the wrestling business is, how the moves are done, and then posting vacation trips of them hanging out with their opponents as they are feuding. Social Media has really ruined Pro Wrestling more than the Internet ever has... Wrestlers are taking too many liberties with their fans via Social Media and they were really getting "in too deep" with the Third Party Services that the WWE is trying to bottle up.
In short - Wrestlers today are better protected with concussion protocol and drug testing... But the guaranteed money has taken the hunger out of them and the comped hotel/travel by the WWE has reduced wrestler interactions to create a more uniform locker room. In response to the WWE's tough Third Party rules could be that WWE wrestlers could unionize... But they aren't as close as they once were 30 years ago backstage. Thus, they might be unable to organize a union because they don't know each other as they could. It's very hard to know someone when you're locked in your hotel room and playing video games alone all night long.
I compare Pro Wrestling to the Music Industry quite often... In my opinion, music today isn't as good as it used to be. Before 2000, you had the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Led Zepplin, Michael Jackson, Queen, Marvin Gaye, NWA & Ice Cube & Dr. Dre & Snoop Dogg, Metallica, AC/DC, Guns N Roses, etc... And what do you have since 2000? Well... Female artists have picked up, but where is all of the bands full of guys? Bunch of dudes who wrote great songs, spent hours in the studio perfecting them, and then packing arenas with fans to watch them? You're certainly not getting that with Maroon 5 or Coldplay.
One of my favorite comedians was named Bill Hicks. He certainly told his fair share of jokes and stories, but he was very heavy on social commentary. Poor guy died of pancreatic cancer during early 1994... Many of his famous rants were about Music, particularly about his love of the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix while being highly critical of the 1980s Pop Stars that dominated that decade like George Michael, Kenny Rogers, Debbie Gibson, and others. Also during the late 1980s, there was a big push for "Just Say No" and other anti-drug campaigns. Here's a famous rant of his:
"See, I think drugs have done some good things for us! I really do. And if you don't believe drugs have done good things for us, do me a favor. Go home tonight, take all your albums, all your tapes and all your CDs and burn 'em. 'Cause you know what? The musicians who made all that great music that's enhanced your lives throughout the years? Real [f'n] high on drugs."
Now, am I saying that wrestlers should be taking more drugs? NO. The point of Bill Hicks's rant on Music, as you listen deeper into his follow-up commentary, is that musicians were free to create whatever they needed to or wanted to during the 1960s or 1970s. Then when the 1980s rolled around and Mtv became the place to showcase music, things became much more commercialized and controlled. All of the sudden, musical acts were conceived by a bunch of rich executives in a boardroom compared to a bunch of guys working for YEARS on the road to learn their craft and eventually make it big. The early version of the Beatles formed during 1957 and it wasn't until 1963 when they hit it really big. LOTS of hard work within those 6 years and they were hungry to achieve it. They had no barriers in their way back then.
Wrestlers today just don't have that HUNGER that the older wrestlers once had... Guaranteed money, better living/travel/food accommodations provided, fewer dates worked, and obvious pampering at the developmental level has caused a much different locker room. I believe that wrestlers are way too isolated from each other, too... Piling into a car and sharing a hotel room creates a solid bond that is needed to build trust inside the ring.
Corporate WWE is very controlling, yes, I won't deny that... But they are doing no favors for their wrestlers. Just look at their Title scenes... EVERYBODY has been a World Champion at this point between the WWE Title, the big gold WCW belt known as the World Heavyweight Championship, or the formerly red now blue WWE Universal Title. Too many titles and too many title changes... Everybody has been tried as a World Champion already that it just doesn't mean anything. However, being World Champion 30 years ago meant something... It meant that the promoter believed that you were absolutely the top #1 guy and the prestige of that created pride among those lucky to be World Champion.
In my opinion, the WWE could make sweeping changes to fix this and make for a better culture...
(a) No more revealing personal and backstage stuff on Social Media. Period. When you work for the WWE, you're their character 24/7 to the public.
(b) Better training at the Performance Center. Truth hurts on this one, as Matt Bloom wasn't exactly the most outstanding worker or talker as Prince Albert, A-Train, or Lord Tensai. The developmental training is a big issue, as wrestlers are struggling to cut promos, show personality, or use in-ring psychology.
(c) Have more WWE veterans around, not less. WWE should have transitioned many former wrestlers like Edge, Christian, Mick Foley, and even Steve Austin into backstage management or Creative Team roles. Instead, they chose former Hollywood writers... Without veterans backstage, wrestlers can't be corrected of bad habits, critiqued on their matches properly, or helped in any way with the preparation of a match. They need more Pat Pattersons backstage. The veterans would be able to better communicate Talent strengths and weaknesses to Vince.
(d) Require wrestlers to travel and room together more often. Obviously, they'll save costs, but they have to build the bond and be able to socialize with other wrestlers. That's why they don't respect any veterans that come in... Wrestlers today are too isolated from each other and don't have that inside the ring trust that was much stronger back in the day.
(e) Reconsider the contracts... Obviously, you could recreate the hunger by taking away guaranteed contracts, but you'd probably lose much of your talent... In contrast, I would create benchmark bonuses for X amount of merchandise sold or maybe something extra if your Quarter Hour increased for a particular TV broadcast. Something like that... Maybe consider offerings of stock as incentives as well.
Very simple changes...
Just in today's climate, thanks to what happened in the past, wrestlers lack the hunger thanks to the developmental contract, they have an easier path to the WWE thanks to the Performance Center, and they are pampered much more with travel, food, and lodging comps than seen in the past. HOWEVER - Learning from the past's problems of recreational drug abuse, performance enhancer abuse, prescription drug abuse, and a lack of a concussion protocol make's today's environment much safer (besides doing more daredevil stunts).
The conditions back in the day made for a more unified locker room who were hungry to succeed due to the desperate need to maximize their earnings before sustaining an injury. As Chris Jericho pointed out, when he walked into the WWE during 1999, it was a locker room full of "alpha males who had been in the business for years"... Guys like the Undertaker, Steve Austin, Mick Foley, Triple H, Kane, and many guys on the midcard worked hard to earn their WWE spot. Many years of cheap rental cars and cheap hotel rooms to build that hunger and also giving fans great quality by building great trust among another.
The present has learned from the past's mistakes... But the past produced much more quality that fans are still clamoring for to this day. Monday Night Wars and Attitude Era are still considered the BEST timeframe for Pro Wrestling and all of those guys from back then are great friends to this day (if they are still alive). Wrestling obviously isn't nearly as popular now as it was back then... WWE isn't producing top level stars as it once did, either.
There are things that are working in today's WWE culture, as wrestlers are safer from abusing drugs or concussions... But the quality of the product isn't what it used to be. Fix developmental, find a way to increase wrestler aggression for wanting to be successful, improve ways to incentivize success, and for the love of God, protect the damn business and its trade secrets being openly displayed on Social Media or leaked to news sources.
Wrestling could boom again if the WWE just employed these simple fixes...
HOMEWORK: Check out various Bill Hicks comedy specials on Netflix, particularly "Revelations" and "One Night Stand". He was ahead of his time and would have a field day with today's news headlines.
So just chill... Until the next episode!
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